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KABUL — As NATO leaders gather in Chicago to discuss Afghanistan’s future, many here are hopeful, even optimistic, that the outcome will renew confidence in the long-term security of their embattled nation.

But even as nations sign enduring strategic partnerships with Afghanistan, that optimism is tempered by the reality that infusions of cash and additional training for soldiers and police won’t solve what many see as their country’s biggest problem: their own government.

Corruption and cronyism are at least as worrying to many Afghans as threats to security, even in Kabul, which recently suffered a string of high-profile attacks that harmed mostly civilians. Efforts to broker peace with the Taliban, the failure of the nation’s largest bank and the endless flow of cash out of the country have stoked fears that the international community’s withdrawal could further damage what is already a dubious record on transparency and human rights.

“I’m sure that NATO will promise the military and financial support the country needs,” said Moeen Marastial, a former member of parliament from Kunduz province and president of the recently formed Right and Justice Party. “But it’s up to the Afghan government to implement that.”

And that, according to Marastial, is the problem. The government, he said, has lost credibility at home and abroad, and won’t be able to uphold its end of any bargain struck with its NATO allies. He’s doubtful as well that future governments will do so without a major shakeup in the country’s top leadership.

During two previous meetings of NATO allies in Lisbon, Portugal, and Bonn, Germany, President Hamid Karzai pledged to crack down on corruption and clean up the country’s electoral process, Marastial said. Yet despite his promises, Karzai “still didn’t do that.”

Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its next presidential election in 2014 — the year NATO plans to withdraw all its combat troops from the country — and Karzai isn’t allowed to run for a third term under the country’s constitution.

But without electoral reforms, Marastial fears a repeat of the fraud-marred 2009 and 2010 elections, and that the warlords that he said make up most of Karzai’s inner circle will rig the election to stay in power.

If that happens, he said, “I can’t see positive steps for the proper implementation of those strategic agreements” that will be signed in Chicago. The agreements “don’t mean anything if the warlords are in power.”

Mohammad Haroon, a 21-year-old from Kabul, said it was clear to Afghans that corruption and the country’s mishandling of aid money have already damaged the country’s standing in the international community as it tries to rebuild. Foreign donors abandoned some of their development programs because of the corruption, he said.

He’s sure the country will get the cash it needs for its army and police, but doubtful NATO will agree to offer more development money, he said, because all Karzai has done to fight corruption is offer “empty words.”

Nevertheless, Khalid Pashtoon, who represents Kandahar in parliament and sits on that body’s defense committee, said he’s hoping for a commitment of at least $100 million in development aid from NATO, which could be spent either on infrastructure or programs to improve governance.

More important, though, is that those meetings in Chicago spell out funding for Afghan forces after the pullout of Western troops, he said. The annual cost of training, equipping and paying the salaries of Afghan forces has been pegged at about $4.1 billion a year, a sum far greater than the Afghan government can afford. The U.S. has lobbied its allies to help foot the bill, but American taxpayers are expected to bear the brunt of the cost.

“The commitments will give the security forces confidence,” Pashtoon said. “The soldier thinks, ‘My salary will not go down.’ It will increase morale.”

He acknowledged that some of Afghanistan’s supporters appeared to be looking for a quick way out of the war, now more than a decade old, but said NATO understands what will happen if it abandons the country before it is ready to defend itself. Most of the country’s allies, he said, were committed to making sure that doesn’t happen.

“Generally, these strategic partnerships have strengthened the belief among the people that even if some leave, the commitment is there,” Pashtoon said.

Massouda Jalal, a women’s rights activist and former presidential candidate, is not among those encouraged by NATO’s plans. She is angered by efforts to broker peace with the Taliban, whose ideology she described as “antithetical” to democracy, and believes any negotiations with the group pose a threat to women.

In a speech she prepared for others to read at the Chicago conference and provided to Stars and Stripes, Jalal wrote that “the suppression of women’s rights is the most valued chip for the Taliban, next to money and power. And given that women’s rights mean nothing to our leaders, it is likely to be the first to be traded off.”

Later in the speech, she writes: “We cringe at the thought that the substantial funds for our security transition will be managed by a government that ranked third in the list of the most corrupt governments of the world.”

“We all know what’s going on,” said Mohammad Khan, a property dealer who arranges sales and rentals for Afghans and foreigners in Kabul. “Right now in Afghanistan, corruption is a huge problem. I will say that, until we tackle this problem, there won’t be a change for the better in Afghanistan.”

While he is glad to see the U.S. and others sign on to support his country’s security forces for another decade, he’d like to see nations put conditions on their support. If they don’t, he said, the billions that are supposed to go to the army and police might end up where most aid to the country has gone before: “to the pockets of the warlords, powerful people, officials, leaders.”

Even if NATO stays in the country for 50 years, he said, “there won’t be any change if Afghans don’t learn how to take care of their own country.”

millhamm@estripes.osd.milTwitter: @mattmillham

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